Niue, “The Rock of the Pacific”, did not look very inviting when we arrived. It was a grey and rainy day, the first one in a while, when we entered the bay outside main town Alofi. There were no other boats here and this being the only anchorage on the island we were the only one in Niue! Since the anchorage is completely unprotected from the west and we did have a weak westerly wind, I started thinking was there maybe some bad weather coming, so everyone had left? The GRIB files are not showing anything so probably not, maybe we’re just late in the season… Maybe my uneasiness came from the fact that this is the location where the yacht Alma Mater was wrecked in the 70’s, the crew being friends of my father, some of whom I know. They had gotten a bad mooring buoy and a sudden wind shift to the west had put their ferrocement yacht of the reef and that was the end of their adventure. The story has a happy twist at the end, they are actually out sailing again right now, 40 years later! This time on board the very sturdy steel yacht Nerthus. They are one step ahead of us and are already heading for NZ. Their blog can be found at nerthusbloggen.se.
Niue is a raised coral atoll, one of the largest in the world, and from the sea all you see is a 10 m grey stone plateau with green shrubs on top, same thing all around the island. Not so many beaches and coconut trees, not very exotic looking. We picked up one of Niue Yacht Clubs mooring buoys, supposedly much better maintained than the ones in the 70’s… Following Niue protocol we called “Niue Radio” on VHF channel 16 to let them know we were here. It was now 18:00 and they told us we could be cleared in next morning which was well, we just wanted to sleep after the passage here and I got a good 10 hours.
During the passage we actually made a short stop for a snorkelling, anchoring mid-ocean in 3m white sand bottom! This unreal place is the Beveridge Reef, a sunken atoll to the south east of Niue. We hadn’t planned to go there but as we were sailing I came across a picture of this place in one of the books and since it was kinda on the way we went for it. Unfortunately pretty shitty weather and we didn’t get there until 16:30 so a bit dark. Still it was an amazing place, just to swim over a sunken island was cool and had we had more time I’m sure the reef, being completely untouched, should be spectacular. Next time I’m in the area (ha ha) I’ll make sure to anchor here for a week to see what the fishing is like. We did get a taste of it however, outside the reef I dropped in a line and instantly, as I held the line, got a strong strike! Simon started reeling it in and weirdly what felt like a strong tuna quite was giving in. As out catch came closer we could see why, on the line there was only the head of a tuna! Must be some hungry sharks in the area…
Morning after the first night in Niue I had time for a quick snorkel before seeing customs and immigration. Turns out the anchorage was a really cool spot! 15 m deep and 50 m visibility gave a great view underwater. And best was the reef close the the shore, what looked like a boring rocky area of water-level shallows turned out to be a massive coral reef that dropped another 10 m straight down and had all these caves and crevasses you could swim into. It was free dive mecca and we returned here many times. If it wasn’t for my new ciguatera-induced reef fish scepticism I would have speared a couple of the nice big parrot fish that were abundant.
Going ashore with the dinghy was a new experience. No dinghy dock as the little unprotected wharf gets some heavy swells. The solution to this is lifting the dinghy from the water with a big crane and placing it on the ground. Works really well and being a crane operator is really fun. At least the first couple times.
Super friendly and informal check-in performed right down at the docks. The officer ended up giving us a tour around town in his van. Just like Cook Islands, Niue belongs to New Zealand. Or not belongs, they are in “free association” with NZ where, as I understand it, NZ helps with funding their public sector and managing foreign relations. You can tell these countries are different from the French islands of Polynesia. Things just look a bit more clean and proper, better built houses, many with neatly trimmed lawns in front. One odd thing, from an outsiders perspective, is that usually the most prominent place of the lawn, facing the street, is occupied by the family tomb. Always shiny and well-kept, sometimes even with lighting installed! The feel is overall more modern. In the small village you can walk by what looks like a little bodega in a container and discover they have an “Iced frappuchino slushie” machine.
Day two we rented a car, a little bad-ass boxy Toyota that we were to have for the next couple days to go around the island and check out the Sea Tracks. This it the main attraction of Niue. These well marked and signed tracks are scattered all along the coast. Most of them involves a short hike, light climbing and then the attraction - a nice cave with stalactites, a chasm creating a protected lagoon to snorkel in or just cool arches and other rock formations that the sea has sculpted from the porous lime stone of the coast.
When doing research about the island I had come across one place that stood out, the Vaikona Cave. Apparently it was “with guide only” but the guys I read about had gone there themselves, at least to the first part of the cave. Going deeper inside requires free diving with torches as the entrance is under water. Hmmm…interesting. We heard nobody did the guided tours here anymore but we got a tip to talk to Willie, an old guide who knew the place. He works at Washaway Café so we went there for lunch. Very chill place serving wahoo fish burger etc and overlooking the ocean. He was friendly and enthusiastic and after having a quick look at us he said, “sure, you can go, no problem!”. Because we were yachties he was sure our diving skills etc was sufficient. He drew us a map of the different halls of the cave and where to find the cracks to swim through and we were off.
It was a nice 20 min hike down from the road through a forest trail, jumping over roots and spiky limestone rock boulders, climbing over logs and watching out for the spiderwebs that crossed the path everywhere. At the very small entrance to the cave there was a painted sign warning for falling rocks and other dangers. At Your Own Risk it said. We found the rope Willie had told us about and started the descent. Steep slope 100 m or so, nothing too tricky and then you got down to a plateau overlooking the first hall of the cave. Here the roof of the cave had fallen in, filling the space with light, a beautiful sight. Only problem - to get down there it was a vertical wall that dropped 3 m and then a 1 m gap to a large rock you had to reach over to be able to get down. The wall had a rope but the surface was smooth and wet and looked slippery. No problem for experienced climbers but definitely at my limit. I got standing and was seriously thinking of chickening out. Then Simon caught up and luckily turned out to have a hidden rock-climbing talent! He climbed down with no problem and then guided me down as I, hands shaking, struggled to find grips in the rock wall and finally making the transition over to the other rock. Hampus and Johan followed and we all made it down!
Next step was climbing across the boulders of the fallen in roof to the other side of the hall. At the end there was a small pool of deep, blue, crystal-clear water. Must be the opening to the cave. We jumped in the cold fresh water and swam inside to the second cave hall. The roof was very low and we kept to the left as Willie had told us. Eventually we found the opening to the next hall a couple meters down below the surface. Simon and I had dive torches so he went first and I last so we all had light. Looking down into the water it was ten meters deep and the torch light reflected all over the rocks and cracks of the cave. Nothing grew here, just bare, clean limestone rocks that felt like they’d been there forever. Only sign of life was a small species of fish, looked like a little brown cod, maybe 10 cm, that swam close to the opening where there was some light. A very lonely existence. I dove down to the underwater passage, swam through and saw the guys up by the surface at the small opening.
Then we climbed through a narrow hall, we were cold from the water and trying not to slip on the many loose rocks. We tried turning off the lights and were surrounded by complete darkness and silence. It was intense. On to the next swim under passage. Here there was a way to climb around it but Simon, proving to be the secret Indiana Jones of the group, went straight for the underwater opening and 30 seconds later we heard him on the other side. He lit up the way with the torch and we could follow. It was a longer dive, 30 seconds feels very long in a situation like this and diving without fins and weights you use a lot of oxygen. I don’t even understand how he found the opening in the roof, it was by the wall on the far side of the large underwater tunnel, hidden until you got there. I came up to the surface and inhaled some very welcome oxygen. Once out of the water we recognised the landmark Willie had told us about - a conspicuously shaped rock pillar he’d named Captain Cooks dick! This meant we had made it all the way to the end and now we could start making out way back. Finding the way back was not a problem, but even the minor hesitation got you thinking. The idea of not finding the way out… We did of course, and diving through the last underwater passage in the deep, clear blue water and seeing daylight again at the bottom was an amazing experience!
I had dreaded climbing back up against that wet, slippery rock wall at the entrance. Luckily it went easier this time, Simon went first and guided us up, step by step and everyone got back up all right. Coming out of the cave we all felt almost like borne again, like we had experienced a real adventure and were happy to come out with the whole crew undamaged!
After this one the other Sea Tracks seemed pretty dull. We did a couple more and then focused on diving the reef at the anchorage. Last day we bought 24h internet for $15NZ and set up the Kenobi Office at the picknick tables outside Niue Telecom shop. Laptops, ipads and chargers everywhere. It was blogging time and we also needed to send the ridiculously detailed 5-page Advance Notice Form to Fiji authorities, start looking into OZ visas and getting a lot more cruising info on Fiji. Luckily we had an indian restaurant next to us that kept us fed with a steady supply of cheap rotis and watery NZ beer. We met some old friends, by now we were six boats in the bay. One Love did a schneaky “technical stop” one night without checking in, Zig Zag came in after a couple rainy days at Beveridge Reef and we were happy to see Jerome who was doing a lot better after the ciguatera incident. For my part the ciguatera symptoms are almost completely gone after two weeks, I’m very thankful for that.
On Tuesday the easterly trade winds had picked up again and we were off towards our last big stop among the South Pacific islands - Fiji.